The Root: Putting The 'Active' Back In Activism

Partner content from The Root

Civil rights march on Washington, D.C.

A 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C. Tactics such as marches, sit-ins and boycotts were used widely during the civil rights movement. Leffler, Warren K./Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Leffler, Warren K./Library of Congress

John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root. He is the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.

"Speed on before you get peed on." I found myself thinking about that old lyric from Gang Starr's "Tha Squeeze" when I read D. Omavi Harshaw's bit about black America being "urinated on." But I consider the part about the speed to be more important than the part about getting peed on.

Namely, there is a certain passivity that worries me about the way Old Man Racism is discussed in black media circles these days. Too often what I detect is a shrug, a click of the tongue — or, really, a sense that enduring racist abuse is almost something to be proud of.

Me, I'm not proud of enduring anything. I assume that no one truly feels noble in being a victim. If I am abused in a way that matters, I'd rather make sure it didn't happen again, and in that, I feel akin to the civil rights generation that made my life possible. Are we all keeping that flame alive as much as we should?

Here's what I mean. We read about blacks and Latinos putting up with way too many stop-and-frisks in cities like New York. So — what do we do about it? Supposedly, we are to shake our heads and think, "The police should stop being racist." But that's not an activist position in 2010. The police can pull back on the most egregious types of profiling, of course — and in most departments across the country, conditions on this score have improved since the situation 10 years ago.

But can it be that kids living in the projects will be stop-and-frisked at the same rate as kids living in leafy Westchester County suburbs? No. Why? "Racism" isn't a sufficient answer — no one is saying, "Let's go bother those kids because they're black and brown!" The reason kids from the Bronx will endure the stop-and-frisks more than kids from Scarsdale is the "war on drugs."

Police flood inner-city neighborhoods searching for drugs because it's their job. No, they don't pour into wood-paneled Scarsdale basements to catch white kids snorting lines — because this activity is largely unconnected to violence. Drug sales on street corners are connected to turf wars throughout the neighborhood. It's why black people in those communities often want more police in the neighborhoods and why, originally, the Congressional Black Caucus was firmly behind penalizing crack possession more than powdered-cocaine possession.

So ultimately, the way to stop black and brown kids from suffering so many stop-and-frisks is to seek the end of the war on drugs. This is logical: no war on drugs, no markup that justifies selling the drugs on the street, no police in inner-city neighborhoods looking for drug sellers, no stop-and-frisks. That's it.

Seeking an end to the war on drugs should not be associated with libertarians tilting at windmills and making arguments about freedom. It should be a central plank of modern civil rights activism — as opposed to just shaking our heads.

Another example: Now and then we read of black people being refused service or asked to leave an establishment for no apparent reason. Sometimes these cases are more readily explainable than the initial hype implies. For example, two summers ago, a Philadelphia swimming club did not expel a black group because of their color. In other cases, however, the allegedly offending body just clams up.

Dori Maynard's expulsion from a Hampton Inn last month seems to be such a case. Waiting for the management to engage her and shaking our heads when it doesn't will not do. I sincerely suggest that if Maynard does not report to us that she has received a sincere apology or explanation very soon, then it should quickly become as socially incorrect for a black person to stay at any Hampton Inn nationwide as it apparently is for one to support Sarah Palin. These days, it would be much easier to get the word out than in the old days. As soon as the mainstream media got wind of the boycott — and it would be a good story and would get around like wildfire — Hampton would come up with something fast.

Let's try it — anything but bemoaning our victimhood as if we were born to it. Yep, along these lines, black people would be doing a lot of boycotting — but that's the way it used to be, and it did a lot of good. And along the way, I suspect that we'd also have some Teaching Moments in which we learned that stories aren't always as simple as they seem. But mainly, we'd be doing something.

Doing something — that should always be the motto. Black kids aren't reading up to speed? The question, then, is, what do we know now that teaches them how — not, how long do we wait for all black kids to go to excellent schools? Mortgage lenders are preying on poor blacks? Pastors should be as committed to teaching their flocks to watch out for more of the same as they were to fanning support for Obama's candidacy, and getting that learning process under way should be much more interesting to all of us than shaking our heads over how racist Wells Fargo is.

The proper word will not be "is" but "do." Activism is about doing. Or, if it really makes sense just to sit shaking our heads, then maybe that means we've gotten to the point where The Struggle is over.

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